Community Builders -

Nancy Sojka & Northeast Iowa Quilters Guild

By Christy Ebert Vrtis | Fall 2022 Inspire(d)

Nancy Sojka loves to go fast. Those who’ve seen her zip by on Decorah’s Trout Run Trail in her red, white, and blue bicycling jersey can attest to this fact.

“I love flying down a hill. I love that feeling of flying,” she explains with a laugh. “So I’m willing to climb hills in order to do the downhill. I’ll do the work. But I love the payoff at the end.” 

This philosophy of working hard for that payoff reaches into all aspects of Nancy’s life. 

Nancy Sojka, co-founder of the Northeast Iowa Quilters Guild, stands in front of a hanging quilt
Nancy Sojka helped found the Northeast Iowa Quilters Guild / Photo courtesy Nancy Sojka

Like many great origin stories, the Northeast Iowa Quilters Guild (NEIQG) began with two people meeting in a small-town bar and drinking…coffee. 

Nancy and NEIQG co-founder Anna Houdek were introduced at a Spillville city council event – their husbands were both on the council at the time – and they formed an immediate connection. 

“We went to some dinner for city council members and just struck it. You know, I mean, we were just instantly friends” Nancy recalls. “Anna had the habit of going to the local bar for coffee every morning at nine o’clock. She invited me to come and Charlie [Nancy’s eldest son] was a baby. So I took Charlie and we went to coffee at the bar every morning.” 

One morning, Anna mentioned that she had inherited an antique quilt top that belonged to her aunt – a lovely, embroidered white background top from around 1940. She asked Nancy to help her quilt it – for quilting novices out there, that means finishing it off by adding the backing and additional layers to the quilt top, then hand-quilting all layers together to make the final quilt.

“My grandma had just given me quilt frames,” Nancy says. “So we took this beautiful antique, and we put polyester batting behind it and started quilting. And I mean, we were okay quilters, but it was pretty audacious to take the antique piece and make it into a quilt so that she could put it on her bed!”

They shifted their morning coffee routine from the bar to Anna’s house, and quilted over the next several weeks. As the quilt came together, piece by piece, so too did the plans for the Northeast Iowa Quilters Guild.

One day while they were quilting, Anna mentioned she’d been hearing of other women who had started quilting. She told Nancy about her grandma’s weekly quilting bee, a group that would sometimes work on their own projects, and other times quilt for others, charging .50 cents a spool of thread and giving whatever money they had earned to the church or others in need. Anna then suggested she and Nancy make it official and start a guild.

“I said, ‘Well, yeah, that’d be kind of fun, I guess. You know, I’ve never been a part of a quilt guild,’” Nancy remembers saying. “And I thought about my grandma’s quilting bee and I said, ‘I don’t want to do this once a week, though.’”

Just like flying downhill on a bike, the idea for the quilters’ guild grew fast. Nancy and Anna agreed to meet just once a month to brainstorm possibilities of what the guild could do, like sharing their works-in-progress and having guest speakers. Then, they decided to get the word out.

Nancy Sojka stands with a group of women she bikes with
Nancy Sojka (left) with her “Wheel Women,” who meet once a summer to go on a long (think 150+ miles) biking adventure over several days in Wisconsin. / Photo courtesy Nancy Sojka

“So we put an ad in the Decorah paper and the Calmar paper and 35 women showed up!” Nancy exclaims with an air of wonder. 

Since that first meeting in 1982, the NEIQG has grown to more than 100 members that meet regularly at the Luana Savings Bank. In addition to showing their work and featuring guest speakers, the Guild travels together to quilt shows in other states and hosts their own quilt show in Decorah. 

“The very first year we decided that we were going to do a biennial quilt show. We decided that we would have it at the school gym in Spillville. And so we just put out something saying ‘if you have quilts, please bring them [and] send us a description so that we can make a book,’” Nancy explains with a smirk.

“So 300 quilts came. And then when people brought their quilts in, you know, they’d have this big stack of quilts. And it’s like ‘you know, when I was getting these quilts out, I realized that I had these other two that my grandma gave me, and can I leave them too?’ and we ended up with 420 quilts! We didn’t even have enough places to hang them!” Nancy remembers fondly, shaking her head in amazement. “It was just so well received, that we were kind of blown away. It really was way more successful than we expected it would be.”

The overwhelming response to the guild’s first quilt show helped to bind the Guild members, who came from many different communities, together. Since then, the Guild has been very active – growing its membership, traveling to the Great Wisconsin Quilt Show together each year, and continuing to host their own biennial quilt show. The pandemic altered the regular schedule, but they’re back to hosting that show this fall (see sidebar for details), and bringing people together who might not otherwise connect.

Members of the Northeast Iowa Quilters Guild on their first group travel experience to The Quilt Expo (now The Great Wisconsin Quilt Show) in 1986.
The Northeast Iowa Quilters’ Guild members on their first group travel experience – to The Quilt Expo (now The Great Wisconsin Quilt Show) in Madison in 1986. This show is an opportunity for NEIQG members to travel together to Madison and see hundreds of spectacular quilts on exhibit, attend lectures and classes from quilting experts, and even engage in some excellent shopping! / Photo courtesy Nancy Sojka

 “The Guild offers education in basic or new or more advanced techniques to quilters from multiple communities in Northeast Iowa,” Nancy explains. “Many of the people in the Guild work mostly alone in their homes or studios. The Guild gives them the chance to share ideas and inspiration.” 

And, according to Nancy, there is usually a healthy mix of friendship, good food, and good drinks along the way.

Christy Ebert Vrtis

Christy Ebert Vrtis is a teacher, writer, mom, and crime drama enthusiast who loves to curate book lists for family and friends, run (slowly) on the Trout Run Trail, and adventure around the world and throughout the Driftless with her husband and kids.

Razzle Dazzle Quilt Show

The “Razzle Dazzle” 40th Anniversary Quilt Show, sponsored by Decorah’s Red Roxy Quilt Company, provides an excellent opportunity for the Guild members to share the results of their work, skills and creativity with the broader Northeast Iowa community. 
The “Razzle Dazzle” will take place in the new community building at the Winneshiek County Fairgrounds in Decorah, and will run Saturday, October 15 from 10 am to 5 pm, and Sunday, October 16, from 10 am to 4 pm. The show will feature over 300 quilts and quilted items on display. There will also be a quilt raffle, canister raffle, the Quilt of Valor presentation, vendors, bed turning, lunch, a book and magazine sale, and demonstrations. For more information about the NEIQG, or to become a member, visit